The Reality of Working as a Behind-the-Scenes Photographer

The Reality of Working as a Behind-the-Scenes Photographer

Working as a behind-the-scenes or “stills” photographer is an entirely different experience to most usual photography jobs. As photographers we naturally tend to take charge of the creative direction, and are used to getting our own way. Working BTS requires you to work within different dynamics, not least of which involves being surrounded by other creatives, each with their own opinions and ideas. Here are some of the best and worst things you can expect whilst shooting behind-the-scenes.

The main difference when you’ve been hired to work as a photographer on someone else’s set is that your needs are secondary to that of the rest of the crew. On an ordinary assignment, I’m used to being responsible for assembling a creative team, overseeing everything from booking in a location, to selecting the subjects, directing the shoot, and so on. When shooting behind the scenes at a music video or short film, that’s not so much the case. Turning up on the day, you can expect to be just one member of a large team of people, most (if not all) of whom you will never have met.

One huge plus side is that somebody else will have done all the groundwork for you. Other than actually shooting and editing, every time I've been enlisted for BTS, I wasn’t required to do any other prep. It has always been a case of arriving ready to shoot whatever I find when I get there. Sure, I love the planning phase of any shoot, but it's always nice to just indulge in the parts of the job I enjoy most without the stress of the pre-production side of things.

Working Around Everyone Else

A good BTS photographer is one that can work in the background, slipping by largely unnoticed. He or she is expected to document everything that is going on to really capture the atmosphere on set from start to finish. Your job is secondary to any member of the crew who is contributing directly to the production. As a self-confessed control freak, it can be hard having others direct what is going on around me. Someone recently called me a “one-man band” because of my tendency to want to do everything for myself on set rather than enlist assistants to help. Wanting to have an input in all stages of the creative process is ordinarily a good quality to possess, but in the case of BTS, you can leave your opinion at the door. One of the biggest obstacles is watching the orchestration of a photo or video shoot, and not being able to have a say in the creative direction. Try to remember the way you feel when you’re in the middle of shooting one of your own ideas: the way you just want to get it done, and done well. You have to think about how insignificant everyone and everything else feels when it's just you and your subject trying to create the best pictures possible. You have to try to respect everyone else's job whilst you're shooting; all the while having to work around the setback of avoiding the sound of your shutter being picked up by one of the many microphones on set.

Team Player

The sooner you realize that your job extends so much further than taking photos, the better. Be prepared to double up as the water boy. Productions considered large or important enough to require a behind-the-scenes photographer are often pretty hectic and it’s highly likely you’ll be roped into carrying out tasks that you’d ordinarily expect a runner to take care of. Carrying bags, moving the set around, locating members of the team, the list goes on. And let's not forget members of the crew spotting you with a camera and asking you to take photos of whatever they’re up to.

As anyone who’s ever done a shoot knows, things don’t always go to plan, and the best way to take care of it is by working with your colleagues as a team. Be prepared to help out with all aspects of the shoot — just make sure you aren’t compromising the task your client has set you. It can be easy to get carried away in at atmosphere that is so frantic, as there’s always something going on. Whilst some members of the crew will have a designated lunch slot, others will be setting up the next scene ready to film as soon as lunch is over. It’s incredibly important not to get swept up in the antics of it all or, more commonly, not to let yourself be intimidated by a stressed-out director that enjoys dictating what’s going to happen. With respect to the bosses and their plan for the day, it’s essential to be confident enough to grab whatever photos you need to get. If you’ve been entrusted with taking portraits of the production’s subject, don’t be scared to jump in and snap them as soon as production halts for a break. Naturally, you’re going to feel like you’re being intrusive of the artist’s down-time, but the bottom line is that you have a client to answer to. Having to feed back to your client that somebody was “too tired” or that you “didn’t have the chance” to get what was required of you will not suffice, and will undoubtedly scupper your chances of ever working with them again.

Composition Goes Out the Window

For the same reasons, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself with your final image results. As photographers, we naturally have a sense of composition, and a desire to craft it the best that we can. The process of reviewing our own behind-the-scenes photos can be a confusing ride, because the nature of it means we can easily be left unsatisfied. I have a hard time switching off; I’m always annotating images, picking out what I do and don’t like about them. It’s easy to look at a bunch of BTS images and decide they’re sub-standard, when the truth is that the dynamics of BTS means they will never be artistic in the way a “regular” shoot will. Naturally, seeing photos cluttered with the likes of camera equipment, mountains of wires, and members of the team who have inevitably been running in and out of your shots the entire day can make you feel like you've done a sub-par job. The process of selecting final images to submit to your client differs drastically in that we are looking for a different kind of result. Try to remove yourself from being overly critical and instead focus on ensuring you submit the photos that best represent and document the day.

Expect the Unexpected

BTS can also mean you’re working with a large number of people. Shooting Foster The People meeting a bunch of their fans meant I had almost zero control of what was going on. There were a lot of excitable teens, meaning that you have to do what you can in the (often short) timeframe you've been given. In this particular instance there was paint involved, meaning it wasn't something that we could re-shoot. Learning to cope in high-pressure situations is something that comes with experience and the knowledge of how best to use your camera; to be able to adapt to using different settings in a hurry.

One Big Happy Family

One of my favorite parts about working as a stills photographer on projects such as a music video is the sense of community that always seems present on set. Unlike the portrait shoots I’ll be working on day-to-day (where I’ll often have little time to get to know any members of the team I’m yet familiar with), there are large numbers of people involved. Large productions mean large teams, and there can easily be 40 people in the same room at any given time.

It’s not unusual to work a 13-hour day. The brief for a behind-the-scenes photographer is likely to include documenting the day from start to finish, right up until production ceases. Naturally, by the end of it you’re well-acquainted with many of the people on set, be it the director, the management team, or the runners. There’s a real sense a community before the day is over, and it’s nice to share a creative vision amongst a team, knowing that everyone present is there to support and work towards the same goal: making this production the best it can possibly be. I’ve made long-term friends from working together so closely for such a long period of time on a single project.

Plus, if it’s a terrible shoot, you can always load your bag up with the free food someone else has paid for (I’m freelance, that’s my excuse).

You may end up taking more photos than you were planning to. You’ll almost definitely end up putting in more effort than you thought you would. But it’s always interesting to be present on someone else’s set and gain an insight into how other people work. It’s great for networking, as you’ll meet endless amounts of creative people and technical experts. Working BTS can give you that sense of team spirit that so often lacks when you’re a photographer who works with different people every day. It's something different and fun, and I know I always look forward to the next time someone reaches out to me needing a behind-the-scenes photographer.

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14 Comments

A nice thought in the spirit of teamwork, but you absolutely *must not* cross the line and "help" others with their tasks on a union set. Also, part of the job of doing stills on a television or film set is finding a way to work around the gak and get the production stills of the talent in character for promotional purposes. If you aren't finding a way to get those clean shots you probably wont get that call back then either.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

Totally agree ... on small indie productions I can see this happening but I don't know many small productions that would have the budget to spend on hiring BTS. Often you already have people playing 2 or 3 rolls ...

Director / Cam Opp: "Ok so you'll do boom opp, and set design and you'll pull focus."
??? : "How am I supposed to hold the boom and pull focus?"

LOL

Mike Bartoszek's picture

Ya, for sure don't cross that line on a union call.
Great way to get "asked to leave" the set.

Took me a while to get used to the "Hurry up and wait" ideology. Coming from concert work where it's always "go go go" to film or conference work where its much slower paced.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

Working as a behind-the-scenes or “stills” photographer is an entirely different experience to most usual photography jobs.

:endquote

I don't know ... sounds like most of my wedding shoots.

Prep Pictures
Mix of candids and posed.

Ceremony
Candids

Formals
Posed

Reception
Candids

At a wedding, other than the 1 hour I get for the formals and a handful of shots during the preps and the reception, my needs are secondary to the event. My job, other than for the formals and a few posed shots) is to be as invisible while doing my job a I can. The best compliment I got AT a wedding reception was from the father of the bride:

"You're still here? I thought you had left! I haven't seen you all night."

I then showed him pictures I'd taken of him and others up to that point.

I had another wedding where the mother of the groom came and thanked me for being so discrete, she had just been at a wedding a few weeks earlier where the photographer had monopolized the whole day.

I had a celebrant come to me and lay down the law (he was actually a really nice guy) because he's had fricking idiot photographers INTERRUPT THE CEREMONY.

The photography is important but it is SECONDARY to the event itself so I do my best not to detract from that event.

Exactly what I was thinking -- you're a ninja for the majority of the day until formals really.

Probably some of us should've written an article named "The Reality of Working as a Studio Photographer". We will tel how hard it is, that there is no real life in the shoot, nothing happens and you are fully responsible for the flow and the result :)

Levy Moroshan's picture

Good intro for working on small productions and indie stuff. I've been doing BTS photography for a few years now. Started with the small stuff and now work for ABC/Disney and commercial clients like Alienware, EA Sports and Intel. Like Ryan said, you don't touch another department. They do their job you do yours. Working as a professional BTS photographer you either have a "blimp" so there's no sound or a camera that makes no sounds to begin with. In most cases you're required to shoot even while the sound is rolling. Also you're not able to pick and choose what to deliver to the client. My contract with ABC usually lists that I have to deliver all photos. No editing allowed. No deleting allowed. I just dump the card and overnight it to them. Most of the time I'm told what kinds of shots they're looking for. Sometimes they want character shots and other times promo shots from the set that get "leaked" when the studio wants. There's a little room to get creative as well. As long as all the requested shots are in the can though. It's a fun experience and one of my favorite types of shooting. You never know what to fully expect and lots of times you get to do things most people don't.

Lorenzo Rinella's picture

A good read, thank you Jack

Any tips on how to get into this type of thing?

Darryl Calvert's picture

yes, i would like to know too. i do a lot of indie/student films for northern film school at the moment and would like to try turn it into a career.

user-100178's picture

I have never read a less factual account of my job. Please have a professional write a rebutal to this fiction.

Mitch Meyer's picture

Making connections with network photo managers is a good start to get into this arena.

Darryl Calvert's picture

Ok, so where do you find them? Here's one I made earlier....